For the past several weeks I have spent some time with the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1, NVIDIA’s latest entry into the tablet market. Part of the class of devices with 8-inch screens, NVIDIA positions the device as a gaming tablet thanks to the processor and graphics chip that help drive the high resolution screen and a variety of effects you likely will not see on other tablet devices.
In the past I have used 10-inch tablets and I have a 7-inch second generation Nexus 7. Like much of the market, I may be a microcosm of what is happening with tablets as I rarely use my tablets, opting for either my smartphone or just jumping on my laptop. One of the questions any tablet manufacturer, including NVIDIA, is faced with is “why bother?” with a tablet. NVIDIA hopes they have answered that question with NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1.
When initially confronted with the SHIELD Tablet K1, the first thing noticeable is the heft of the device. The SHIELD Tablet K1 comes in at 9.2 mm thick and weighs 390 grams (13.76 oz). Compared to my Nexus 7 which is 8.7 mm thick and weighs 290 grams (10.2 oz), you would not think the differences are very noticeable. Nevertheless, the SHIELD Tablet K1 feels much heavier and thicker on initial use. Fortunately, that initial impression fades quickly and the SHIELD Tablet K1 did not present any problems for me in terms of getting tired of holding it.
The tablet itself has fairly large bezels, though not the largest I’ve seen, surrounding the 8-inch screen. The size of the unit is further expanded by the dual front-facing speaker grilles at both the top and bottom or left and right depending on orientation. Smaller bass reflex speaker openings are located in the top and bottom edges of the device.
Along the top edge you will find openings for the 3.5mm audio jack, a micro HDMI port, and the USB charging port. Also located in the middle of the top speaker grille is the front-facing camera. The bottom edge of the device only gets the bass reflex speaker.
The “left” edge of the SHIELD Tablet K1 has two small openings that are used to align the special cover accessory you can get for the tablet. The openings only align the cover as it is held on magnetically.
The “right” edge or top of the device houses the power button and the volume rocker. The slot for the microSD slot is also located there next to the volume controls. The back of the device is adorned with the SHIELD logo and the main camera is located in one corner.
Along with the SHIELD Tablet K1, I also had access to NVIDIA’s universal charger kit that could be used in a variety of countries. NVIDIA also makes a flip cover for the SHIELD Tablet K1 that would probably be worth the investment. The cover has several seams that can be used to fold it in to different configurations to function as a stand. Magnets along the “open” edge also help keep it in place when it is closed. I also found that the tablet could detect when the cover was opened and would turn on the screen, which was a very nice feature.
Overall the fit and finish of the device was nice and solid. I have noticed that over time the speaker grilles seem to be getting discolored. I have not determined whether it is just dust building up on the surface and a good cleaning will fix things or whether the plastic is actually fading or changing color.
One issue I did have with the tablet was the power button and to some extent the volume rocker. The power button on the unit I’ve been using barely extends out of the case, making it very difficult to locate and then to press it in enough to power on the unit. The volume rockers suffer the same problem, though not quite as badly. I have seen this similar issue happen with tablets from other manufacturers, so I suspect this is a production issue and not a design issue. Nevertheless, it was quite annoying to deal with the power button. If NVIDIA continues to produce tablets, they should investigate improvements to the production process and possibly design the buttons to be a bit larger. Even if they did extend appropriately, they are rather small.
The SHIELD Tablet K1 features an 8-inch Full HD (1920×1080) IPS LCD display, NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 processor, GeForce Kepler GPU, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, a microSD card slot for up to 128GB, a 5MP rear camera, a 5MP front camera, a 5200mAh battery, front-facing speakers, a stylus, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.0 LE.
With the hardware packed into the SHIELD Tablet K1, it should be no surprise that performance was top notch. In addition to the processors, NVIDIA includes the Unreal Engine 4 to drive graphics delivery. Although I am not much into games these days, I did fire up Need for Speed: No Limits on the tablet for some testing and noted the device had no problem displaying the full range of special effects like specular lighting, reflections, shadows and other graphs effects. Speed of play was excellent with no pauses or skipping and the game easily transitioned between the game and the story screens.
Although the screen is not a Quad HD display like so many higher end smartphones are getting, it is still very crisp and bright. Netflix and Google Play movies looked great when I was testing them out and with the front-facing speakers the experience is very nice.
One issue that I did have with the tablet was responsiveness of the screen to taps. This seemed to manifest itself when using the Chrome browser, although I detected a few other instances when trying to launch apps.
The battery in the SHIELD Tablet K1 seemed to be adequate for the tablet. When testing with video playback, I could generally run Netflix for about 1.5 hours on full screen brightness and drawn down around a third of the battery capacity. I also tried streaming some music one day and got about 6 hours of use while streaming TuneIn with the screen off except for the occasional check of email. Of course, the biggest hit will come with gaming where I was lucky to get a couple hours of use off of the battery. In a world where so many devices are starting to get quick charge capabilities, I had to adjust my expectations to the “normal” charging speed of the device. You will need to plan on about 5-6 hours of charging time if you drain the battery.
The SHIELD Tablet K1 came with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, but during the time I was testing NVIDIA rolled out their Android 6.0 Marshmallow update for the device. The update process went smoothly. NVIDIA does not run an additional interface on top of Android, so it is close to a pure Android experience. If a user wanted to go in a different direction with a custom ROM, NVIDIA does not block unlocking of the bootloader, although it will void the warranty.
One tweak that I noticed NVIDIA did make involves the process for taking screenshots. This can be triggered by a button on the settings shade, which was handy given the problems I had with the power button making the power + volume down combo for taking screenshots a problem. One issue with the software method was that I could not capture pop-ups and other dialog boxes as they disappear as soon as you access the notification bar.
As far as NVIDIA specific software and apps, NVIDIA does include their NVIDIA Hub application for accessing NVIDIA optimized games and content. This also enables users to access PC gaming titles that can be played on the SHIELD Tablet K1 using their GameStream technology. Users can also access the GeForce cloud gaming platform. NVIDIA includes a drawing program called NVIDIA Dabbler that is supposed to take advantage of the graphics capabilities of the device, although I think your digital graphics skills would need to be fairly robust for this to be of use to you. Finally, NVIDIA does include software to make it easy to use a second screen, like a large screen TV, to either mirror the tablet or to function as the main display while the tablet is used for controls.
The SHIELD Tablet K1 does come equipped with a pair of 5 MP cameras on both the front and back. NVIDIA did build in HDR capabilitiy to both cameras. In a selfie test of the front-facing camera, you can see it did a good job of handling the bright light coming in from a window behind me. The rear-facing camera did fine on well lit shots. However, indoors in lower light the camera produced a lot of graininess.
NVIDIA decided to position their entry into the tablet market with a unique selling point by targeting gamers. That meant packing their tablet full of stout hardware in an effort to drive the latest graphics engines and fully exploit a range of special effects. The good news is that even non-gamers get to enjoy the benefits of the strong processor and graphics chip as everything runs smooth and snappy on the tablet. About the only shortfalls from a spec point of view is that it “only” has a full 1080p HD screen and in only has 2 GB of RAM instead of say 3 or 4 GB. I am not sure there would really be any benefit to upgrades in those areas though as the screen looks great and performance was excellent.
The only complaints I had with the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1 involve the buttons, the power button in particular, and the responsiveness of the screen to tap inputs. Each of those items is more of an annoyance than anything, but the irritation level could vary by user and even for me I found some days I was really annoyed and other days I was just “meh” about it.
One thing that the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1 has going for it is the current retail price of $199. For only a couple hundred dollars buyers can get a tablet loaded up with a cutting edge processor and graphics chip and decent hardware otherwise. Overall the build quality is quite good outside of the apparent quality control issues with a couple items. The NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1 represents a much better bang for the buck than say the Nexus 7 did at the time it was for sale. Even with the problems I had with the unit, I would still recommend the tablet if you are in the market for one to be used for gaming or general use.